In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus in the synagogue teaching on the sabbath. This is the first time Jesus is presented teaching in the Gospel of Mark, but Mark doesn’t tell us one thing that Jesus taught – nothing about the content of his teaching. What we hear is the reaction to his teaching. “The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” There is something different in the way Jesus teaches that amazes the people. They ask, “What is this?” There is something new about Jesus’ teaching. The scribes were “authorities” on the scriptures – scholars of the law, but there is something different about Jesus’ authority that was striking and captured the attention of the people. The “newness” with which Jesus teaches is what is attractive and makes people want to listen to him. What is this difference that the people recognized? The word that is translated as “authority” literally means, “out of his own substance”. The difference is that Jesus’ words have “substance” – there is a perceptible “weight” to what he says since he is speaking about his own life. In the person of Jesus, the words he speaks have taken flesh. There is no disconnect between what he says and what the people see. He is not speaking merely about God or appealing to the “authority” of someone who came before him, like the scribes would appeal to the authority of distinguished Rabbis or even to Moses, the one to whom God gave the law. Jesus speaks with the authority of the “author” of the law. He is not appealing to anyone else’s authority but his own. This is what is striking. But to those who hear him, what he says seems natural. He knows of what he speaks and of who he speaks. What he says is not abstract or theoretical, but very personal. He is speaking from his personal experience. His authority is rooted in his relationship with God the Father. The presence of God is revealed through the words and actions of Jesus. It is like the difference between hearing a news report about an event and hearing the first-person testimony of someone who lived through the event. E.g., the difference between reading about the Holocaust and meeting a Holocaust survivor or reading about the war vs. meeting a veteran from the war and hearing his story. Meeting the person who lived it and hearing the story in their own words makes the event real. They have a distinct authority compared to someone who is offering an opinion about the event or reporting what someone else has said about it.
When reflecting on this Gospel passage with the men’s prayer group, one of the fellows who is a convert recalled what drew him to the faith. It was the preaching of the young assistant priest at his parish, Fr. Joe. There was something different about Fr. Joe’s preaching, and he liked to listen to him. He always hoped that they got Fr. Joe when he and his wife went to Mass. I asked him what was different about Fr. Joe’s preaching. He didn’t recall any specific thing that he taught or said but simply that he “made the Gospel real”. Fr. Joe gave examples from his life and his family that witnessed to how what is said in the scriptures was true for him – was something that he experienced. He was speaking not as if giving a biblical commentary but speaking from his own lived experience. It wasn’t that Fr. Joe simply had interesting things to say about the scriptures – new insights or information that my friend hadn’t heard before, but my friend was drawn to him because he wanted to have the same experience as Fr. Joe had that allowed him to speak the way he did about the scriptures. He wanted to know Jesus the way Fr. Joe did. He saw the Gospel lived – that Christ was real – not just a historical figure from the past – but someone present in the life of Fr. Joe today.
If we are trying to teach the faith or draw someone to Christ, it is not enough to say, “The Church teaches…” or “Pope Francis said….” or “Saint Thomas Aquinas said…” Or “it says in the Bible” or “It says in the Catechism…” Appeals to those authorities are helpful to make sure that what we are saying is connected to the tradition of the Church, but they will not move someone’s heart. As we begin Catholic Schools Week in which we reflect on the gift of Catholic education, we are reminded of something Paul VI said that speaks to Christ’s method of teaching. He wrote in 1975 in a letter on evangelization, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (EN 41). A witness speaks from his or her own experience about how Christ is real and present in his or her life; how the relationship with Christ has changed them; how the truth of a particular teaching is true for them – how they have come to realize the truth of what Jesus claims or the truth of what the Church teaches through their own experience. I remember being amazed at how my first pastor preached. I really loved to listen to him, not so much because he was a great orator but because when he preached, he wasn’t telling someone else’s story, but the history of salvation was his story. He showed through his witness how what Christ said was being fulfilled today in our lives. We are all part of this event of Christ that is happening today. Don’t be afraid to be a witness – to tell your story of how Christ has touched your heart in real and concrete ways. That is how we can speak with the authority of Christ and how his voice is heard today.